James Gandolfini remembered throughout the Tri State as a ‘Jersey guy’ as well as iconic actor

Posted at 8:20 PM, Jun 20, 2013
and last updated 2013-06-20 20:20:28-04

NORTH JERSEY (PIX11) He was one of a kind, and an everyman at the same time.

James Gandolfini is being remembered for those qualities as well as for being an actor who was remarkably talented at portraying his signature character, Tony Soprano, as a relatable and sympathetic Jersey guy, even though Soprano was a violent, murderous mob boss.

Even though Gandolfini had for years lived in a luxury Tribeca apartment, in recent years he’d spent much of his time between a country home in Tewksbury, New Jersey, his native state, and Hollywood.

At his former apartment in Lower Manhattan, a wide array of mementos lined the wall outside of the building’s door.  From a boutique flower arrangement to bodega candles, people left items at a makeshift memorial to the actor’s legacy, the day after he died from cardiac arrest 4,000 miles away in his hotel suite in Rome.

Gandolfini’s sister said that the actor’s 13 year-old son found him on the floor in the bathroom of their suite.  However, back at his former home in Tribeca, everybody had positive memories.  Expressing them most strongly were the workers at his Greenwich Street building.  They said that he’d treated them as though they were the celebrities, not him.

“[He was a] very nice guy,” said Levon Rogers, a maintenance man in the building. “You wouldn’t know he was a movie star, an actor, unless you saw something he was in. Very regular guy.”

“He’d have you up to his apartment, and if he went out somewhere to eat, he’d bring back something from wherever he ate,” said Rogers.

His generosity, and the sudden loss of it, was remembered Thursday throughout our area.  “It’s just like the ending of the Sopranos,” said Vinnie Vella, who’d played Jimmy Petrille on the HBO series, referring to its surprise fade-to-black final scene. “Nobody expected that.  Nobody expected this.”

The scene was filmed six years ago in Holsten’s Restaurant in Bloomfield, New Jersey.  Tony Soprano, his wife, played by Edie Falco, and son, played by Robert Iler, were seated at a table in the restaurant, as a mysterious man sat at the nearby lunch counter glancing at them before heading to the bathroom, never to emerge before the fade to black.

At Holsten’s Thursday, the table where Tony Soprano and his family sat in that scene has a sign on it, reading “reserved.”  It was reserved for a tabletop shrine of flowers and a local newspaper with Gandolfini’s obituary and photograph on the front page.

Customers stopped by, many of them taking photographs, and showing how Gandolfini’s appeal was universal.

“It was just a shock,” said lunch customer Mark Pickford, who was visiting the ice cream shop and diner from Great Britain, “because he was only 51, and I’m 53.”

The eatery’s co-owner reacted on a more familiar, personal level.  “He was just a nice man,” said Chris Harley.  “When he was not shooting [the final scene], he was joking with us and having a cigar.”

Gandolfini’s life was rooted deeply in North Jersey.  He attended Park Ridge High School, where he was voted “class flirt” in his senior year, and acted in drama club productions.

At a nearby Catholic school, his father was the head custodian, and his mother was a cafeteria worker.  Like his two siblings and many other young people from the town of Park Ridge, James Gandolfini went to Rutgers University after graduation.

After finishing there with a degree in communications, he started an acting career that had to be supplemented with bar-tending and construction jobs until his huge break when he was cast as Tony Soprano.

At the Lodi strip club Satin Dolls, which had been called the Bada Bing in the HBO series, managers had set up a shrine to Gandolfini at the bar.  It was under a banner on the balcony emblazoned with Gandolfini’s picture.

The staff, like so many people in the Tri State, remembered Gandolfini not only  as an iconic actor who transformed television drama, but also as someone who was a lot like them.

“He was a Jersey guy,” said “Bada Bing” Bill Pepe, the Satin Dolls spokesperson.  “Just a typical Jersey guy.”